Meet Team Fiona: What it's like to take care of the zoo's baby h - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Meet Team Fiona: What it's like to take care of the zoo's baby hippo

(Provided by Cincinnati Zoo) (Provided by Cincinnati Zoo)
CINCINNATI (FOX19) -

We've watched her gain weight, outgrow pools, graduate to bigger bottles.

Fiona, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens' sweet-faced premature hippo calf, is an undeniable internet darling. She is also stubborn, slimy and sometimes uses her pool as a toilet.

Our news partner at The Cincinnati Enquirer interviewed her keepers, also known as members of "Team Fiona," have sweat, shed tears and suffered more than a few bruises on the roller coaster that was her first three months. And, in between all that, they've done a whole lot of cleaning.

They sum it up as the experience of a lifetime.

The shaky start

Christina Gorsuch, curator of mammals and "coach" of Team Fiona, was among the first people to arrive at the zoo after watching Bibi give birth to Fiona on camera. That was at 2:58 a.m. on Jan 24, six weeks earlier than the baby hippo was supposed to come into the world. Yet into it she came, eyes like Bibi's and coloration like her father, Henry.

"I was amazed she was alive," Gorsuch said.

First, she was so small, just 29 pounds. Before she became an outlier, recorded birth weights for baby hippos ranged from 55-120 pounds. Even worse, she couldn't nurse. Zoo staff knew they had to step in.

Africa keeper Jenna Wingate recalls her first glimpse of Fiona. "She didn't look real," she said.

[Slideshow: Meet Team Fiona]

Beyond the fact that no one in the room had laid eyes on a premature baby hippo before, part of that illusion was Fiona's feet. Hippos have four hooved nails, but at birth, Fiona's were soft, almost gelatinous, and white. "They looked almost pickled," Africa keeper Wendy Rice said.

Normally, two people from the six-person Africa staff would be designated as the primary caretakers for the new addition. But with Fiona's need for round-the-clock care, the roster expanded quickly. Team Fiona grew to 25 people strong, including veterinarians, Africa staff and others. One African keeper, Teresa Truesdale, stayed with her every single night, without a night off, for five straight weeks.

They all had a job to do, one that very few people on the planet will ever experience: To serve as surrogate parents for a calf of a species that's been called Africa's most dangerous animal.

"One of her first nicknames was 'Little Spoon' because all we did was spoon with her," Rice said.

As appealing as snuggling with a little hippo sounds – and was – those early days were emotionally draining. The first week, every day was a question mark. Even as time went on, the keepers felt like they'd no sooner solve one health issue than another would pop up.

"There were at least three major hurdles that she got over that we weren't sure," Gorsuch said. "She tried to die on us a couple of times. Everyone did a great job, but it really wore us down."

Early on, the keepers tried to keep their emotional distance. But the physical closeness made that a tall order.

"I started building an emotional wall between me and the baby," Rice said. "But then you start taking care of her 24/7. It's impossible not to get attached.

"I cried on the way home a lot," she admitted. "It's the most emotionally exhausting thing I've ever been through."

Disconnecting, even for a while, was tough. When her keepers weren't there, they'd often watch her on video. "You try to force yourself to have some work-life balance, but it's hard because you're so emotionally invested," Rice said.

There were physical demands, too. Like the sweating: It was 98 degrees in the area where Fiona spent her first days. Because she couldn't regulate her own body temperature, her caregivers had to keep the ambient temperature at the desired 98 degrees.

It's also pretty easy for even a baby hippo, with her dense, compact little body, to accidentally injure her human companions.

"She's like a little tank," Rice said. "We all have bruises on our legs.

"She does a head-tossing thing that hippos do," she added. "We've all learned to keep our heads back. You only have to get hit in the head once."

Wingate learned to keep her pinky toes out of the way, too.

Cincinnati Zoo's baby hippo captures hearts across the internet

Adding to the complexities of Fiona's care is the fact that it has all been done in the public eye.

"It's a difficult line to walk of wanting to be positive and wanting to be realistic," Gorsuch said.

And there was the weight of not wanting to disappoint Fiona's fans. She has 508,000 of them on Facebook alone. (If you think that's a lot, consider this: Her most popular Facebook post had a reach of 32 million, with 574,000 likes, 167,000 shares and 117,000 comments.)

Plus she's gotten stacks and stacks of fan mail. People made scrapbooks. Mothers of premies reached out with their stories. One mother got her son to give up his pacifier by telling him they'd send it to Fiona.

Despite the added pressure, the public support actually helped with the emotional load. Tears over a tough day would often change to tears of gratefulness for all that love. Rice read social media comments to Fiona, asking the hippo, "do you see how many people say you need to make it?"

They're not quite sure when they started to feel certain she would.

For Wingate, it was after nothing bad happened for two straight weeks. Gorsuch breathed a sigh of relief the first time she saw Fiona get in her big blue pool and "porpoise" around like a normal hippo.

New normal

These days, Fiona spends nights by herself. A keeper arrives at 5:30 a.m. Fiona is usually sleeping, which she does some 16 hours a day, in the pool. When someone comes into the building, she'll move to the edge of the pool to smell them. She's particularly fond of one particular smell.

"When people come up with coffee breath, she loves it," Rice said. "Maybe she's just built that association with us staying up all hours drinking coffee."

In any case, the first order of business is a weigh-in, followed by a feeding, the first of four for the day. Her caregiver prepares a 2.85-liter bottle of formula, warmed to exactly 100 degrees. (If it's too hot or too cold, Fiona won't drink it.) Fiona often uses their feet as a pillow while they work.

She's usually pretty active after that, walking around and playing, getting in her exercise pool. And when she has to "go," she goes, even if she's in the pool. (Her caregivers remove the solids with a skimmer.)

Fiona caption contest results are in and they're hilarious

When she's not in the pool, her body produces what's called "blood sweat," a mucus-like substance that her keepers describe as a sunscreen, bug repellant, coolant and antiseptic. Sometimes it stains their clothes. They use washcloths to clean her thick skin, which they say feels like a wet or slimy avocado.

Cleaning has been a constant in Fiona's ever-changing world. Everything she touches has to be disinfected. Keepers have to wash their hands, change their clothes and take their shoes off when they come into contact with her.

"When you bring your clothes home, they reek," Rice said.

"Because you're literally sitting in hippo poop," Wingate said.

Little hippo, big personality 

Still, when she gets the hiccups or decides to run or lets the hose run into her mouth, some of her keepers' favorite Fiona moments, it's all worth it.

Not to mention the obvious.

"She's ridiculously cute," Gorsuch said. "I'm a very jaded animal person, and the first time I saw her, I was like, 'that's ridiculous.' It makes tears well up in your eyes how cute she is.

"Zookeepers can get kind of jaded," she added. "You're around amazing animals all day. There is no threshold for Fiona."

"We all still gawk over her every time," Wingate agreed.

And they say she has a big personality, too. Like her mother, Bibi, she's sassy. Sometimes even stubborn.

"You cannot make her do anything she doesn't want to do," Gorsuch said.

Because they can't provide discipline the way a mother hippo could, they treat her more like she's a human toddler. If she won't follow them, they'll act like they're leaving the room. And like a toddler, she'll come running.

On the other hand, like dad Henry, she's affectionate, always wanting to be in contact with someone. For now, that's her caregivers. But like mothers, they know they'll soon have to let Fiona go. They've already stepped back from their nightly vigils and snuggle sessions – "way harder for the care team than it was for Fiona," Rice said. But someday, when she's big enough to make it safe, they'll introduce her to Henry and Bibi and will cease direct contact with her altogether.

"I think it's going to be really hard," Wingate said.

And yet, as hard as it will be, they've recognized that the opportunity to care for an animal like Fiona will likely not come again soon, if ever.

"She was napping on my lap once and I thought, 'what if this is as good as my life gets?'" Rice said.

"I always tell people how magical she is," she added. "I honestly think we could have a unicorn in the holding space next to her and I don't think I would bat an eye."

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